Ghostly Thoughts

Ghosts tend to be on my mind in the autumn.  Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, however, has been on my reading list for quite some time.  As a novel about possession, it has some scary moments, but it’s difficult to compete against The Exorcist in that regard.  Tremblay handles the topic with an ambiguity worthy of Shirley Jackson, however, and there are a few clear nods to her work here.  At the risk of giving out spoilers (you have been warned!) although it’s pretty clear by the end that much of the demonic was a cry for attention, the family member behind the tragedy is clearly left obscure.  We find out whodunit, but we’re left unsure as to the real reason behind it.

For fear of giving away too much (although my Goodreads assessment might be guilty of this), I’d like to consider something that I address in Nightmares with the Bible.  Demonic possession is largely coded as a feminine phenomenon.  The reasons for this are likely complex, but they are clearly related to the idea behind witch hunts and fear of women’s power in “a man’s world.”  Possession narratives, while they predated William Peter Blatty, became an essential part of the revived interest in demons brought on by The Exorcist.  Tremblay’s story is clearly aware of this, as he has his characters citing both fiction and non-fictional treatments of the topic.  Since researching the subject on my own, I’ve been wondering if anyone else has been able to handle it as deftly as Blatty did, and although Tremblay has two girls under threat, the question of whether it’s real or not tends to outweigh the pathos of believing Marjorie really has a demon.

In the end, it seems as if her father might be the real source of the family’s haunting.  An unemployed man looking for a way to support his family, he turns to religion.  This scenario is all-too-real to life.  And religion gives us not only a rationale for demons, but also a solution in the form of procedures and proper responses.  There are priests here—the males who alone can deliver the females—but whereas Blatty clearly made them the target of a demon that was pretty obviously real, Tremblay doesn’t play that card.  The priests come and go, and deliverance takes a form not expected for such a narrative.  A Head Full of Ghosts raises lots of questions and, like all good fiction, leaves us pondering at the end.  There’s still time to read it this coming fall.

Remembrance

When reading C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, a number of things stood out in high relief.  One of them was his statement that the early years of autobiographies are often the most interesting.  Now, many people may have difficulty drawing a straight line between Lewis and William Peter Blatty, but the overlaps are there.  I’ll Tell Them I Remember You is a young man’s autobiography, so mostly it deals with early years.  Even more than that, it deals with Blatty’s mother.  Those of us who write often find a kind of inspiration in the life stories of other writers.  To hear Blatty tell it, or rather, to read him tell it, it was his mother who made him the man he became.  It’s a nice tribute.

Blatty is probably best remembered as the author of The Exorcist, but his background as a comic screenwriter comes through in his account.  (He also wrote, for example, the Pink Panther screenplay A Shot in the Dark.)  But more to the point currently, with a spoiled child wanting to try to force a wall that America doesn’t want on it, Blatty’s parents were immigrants.  From Lebanon.  It may be that since I’m writing a book about demons in movies that The Exorcist seems like an important national achievement to me, but it also seems an apt parable for the situation in which we find ourselves.  It worth thinking about—the invasion of evil and how to expel it.  Metaphorical writing is often the best.

Perhaps writers are naturally obstreperous people.  If my novels ever get published you’ll see that characters don’t do what you want them to.  And yet we like what happens when they don’t.  I would have found a bit more information about Blatty’s life an asset.  His mother certainly makes an impression, even if its third-hand.  Writers, if my own experience is anything to go by, often feel they are conduits.  Receivers.  It’s like listening to the radio when driving a car through the mountains.  Suddenly a station comes in clear, but just for a moment.  Ideas for stories are like that—they often arrive when you can’t do anything about them.  Writers carry notebooks for a reason.  I used to have a waterproof one in our shower.  You never know when the signal’s going to come in loud and clear.  And you never know when the people you’re trying to block out might be adding more value than you’d ever imagined.  You might be surprised.

Beneath the Exorcist

William Friedkin rose to fame as the director of The French Connection.  William Peter Blatty had written the screenplay for the Pink Panther film, A Shot in the Dark.  Now Blatty had a serious project in mind as he considered whom to pitch to direct the film of his novel, The Exorcist.  He wanted, and got, Friedkin.  The two disagreed about the final cut of the movie, with Friedkin winning out.  The movie was a tremendous success.  Several years later the cut favored by Blatty was released, again with success.  Blatty died last year.  The year before that so did Fr. Gabriele Amorth, an exorcist for the Diocese of Rome.  Last night I watched The Devil and Father Amorth, a documentary by William Friedkin about the famed exorcist.

The Exorcist made an impact on the lives of many people, not least Friedkin.  Over four decades after making this film, the director is still mulling it over.  The Devil and Father Amorth is primarily footage shot by Friedkin of an exorcism performed by Amorth.  In general the filming of exorcisms is forbidden, but given his stature as a film-maker, Friedkin was given permission to film without crew, on a small, hand-held video camera.  Although nowhere near as violent as the fictionalized film, it is disturbing to watch.  As a documentary, it includes interviews with doctors, some from Columbia University, who agree that possession is “a thing,” but one suspects they might disagree with the director as to what that thing might be.

Although Friedkin isn’t an academic, society accepts that (at least some) film-makers are intellectuals.  Perhaps lacking subject specialization, they nevertheless read a lot and possess quite a bit of street knowledge concerning psychology.  Friedkin does.  At just over an hour, this documentary isn’t long, but it is provocative.  For me it raises once again an issue that I address in Nightmares with the Bible—the curious laity, due to lack of engagement by traditional scholars, must rely on such efforts to get information about spiritual entities.  The documentary, which deals with a heavy subject, is one that Friedkin tries to lighten a bit at the end by stating that if there are demons then angels must also exist.  This goes back to the idea, discussed more fully in my book, that demons derive from fallen angels.  The “one size fits all” approach of academia has shoehorned belief in one direction.  While The Devil and Father Amorth won’t likely convince skeptics, many who watch it will be left wondering.

You’ve Never Seen

In spite of accusations of puerile voyeurism, horror is a genre containing many deep films. I have no training as a film critic, but it’s evident that among the more weighty of horror heavyweights is The Exorcist. Mark Kermode is, on the other hand, a film critic, and his book named after the movie demonstrates just how much a viewer can see. I’ve watched The Exorcist quite a few times and there were things I’ve consistently missed. I also realize that I’ve only ever seen The Version You’ve Never Seen (the 2000 theatrical re-release). Having been too young and far too skittish to have seen its debut, I’ve been happy—if that’s the right word to use with such a production—with the version I’ve seen. That’s the human condition, I guess. Kermode made me wonder what it would’ve been like to have experienced it before the spoilers became universally known.

Yes, there are striking special effects—especially for the early 1970s—but the message is what really holds the depth. The story is the classic struggle of good and evil. Demons are, after all, a form of evil personified. The fact that a young girl is the victim may be a little too true to life, but it also gives the drama considerable emotional resonance. In the end, according to the view of the writer and director, good wins. The struggle, as they portray it, is real and costly. It’s always informative to find out what those who made a film thought it was about. Even with the motive of making money, many involved in the industry still have the hearts of artists. Maybe even priests.

Having learned at the feet of post-modernists, we know that no interpretation—even that of the creators—is privileged. Just as there’s no such thing as “only reading,” no one “only watches” cinema. The acts of reading and watching inherently involve interpretation. Kermode draws that out nicely in this little book. His interpretation, as insightful as it is, is but one way of looking at it. Was The Exorcist the version originally released in 1973? Bill Blatty and Bill Friedkin disagreed to the end about what the definitive version was. The many sequels and spin-offs have reinterpreted the story in their own ways. So it is with the struggle against evil. There’s no one single way to go about it. Some make horror movies to demonstrate that point precisely. At least in my view they do.

Behind the Scenes

Although I confess to being a horror aficionado, it took many years before I could convince myself to watch The Exorcist. I finally saw it in the mid-20-aughts, and have watched it many times since. It’s a movie that I discuss in Holy Horror, and it will star in Nightmares with the Bible as well. Although younger people often don’t experience the movie as scary—certainly the increasing trust in science and growth of secularity contribute to this—there is a sincerity about it that earns it its deserved place in the pantheon of horror. Bob McCabe surely counts as a fan for his The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows. Sub-subtitled The Full Story of the Film, this book is a gallimaufry of anecdotes, interviews, and facts about the movie and even its sequels. It’s like of like a sustained reaction shot.

The book doesn’t lack insight and McCabe is surely right that this was one of the most influential movies of the early 1970s. It has become a frame of reference on its own and it has defined, in large measure, what people believe about demonic possession. One of the quotes from McCabe’s treatment however, uses the phrase “metaphysical unknown” to explain why the film retains its power to scare, and there’s a great deal of wisdom in that assessment. Fear of the unknown, of course, is prime real estate for horror, and one of the most interesting things about demons is how little the Bible, or other ancient texts, really says (or say) about them. They are an embodiment of the unknown that can take over a person and make her somebody else. But it’s that metaphysical that’s really scary.

As we continue into a time of less and less that remains unclaimed by scientific theory, those metaphysical unknowns continue to lurk and to frighten. Maybe it’s the concept of the metaphysical itself that scares—can there really be something larger, more intelligent than us? The human psyche bruises easily, and we don’t like to be reminded that we lack the control we suppose we have each day. The metaphysical challenges all that. Since it refuses to submit to empirical verification, it remains unknown. A great many people interpret this as the same as not believing in it. Every once in a while, however, a powerful statement such as The Exorcist comes along. Few people thought about demons before William Peter Blatty’s novel and subsequent film. Then the world was full of them again. Requests for exorcisms are on the rise, and the metaphysical unknown haunts us now as much as it ever has.

Measuring Immeasurables

Are demons getting more active, or are people just believing in them more? Quite apart from what’s happening in the District of Columbia, there’s been a surge of requests for exorcisms. This is according to a WBUR story my wife sent me. I’ve been researching demons for a few years now. Initially my concern was avoiding Hell (something I’d still like to do), but as an adult trained in rationalism, I wondered why people still believed in them. Trying to keep an open mind, I read accounts. Yes, misperception is possible. Alternative interpretations. But still…

Fundamentalists say that demons have to exist because Jesus said so. Historically speaking, people have recognized demons from the earliest writing cultures and probably before. What they thought demons were differed pretty wildly from place to place. A good case has been made that demonic possession, as we recognize it today, became popular after The Exorcist. William Peter Blatty researched the topic, and most of what he uses for Regan MacNeil’s symptoms came from medieval accounts. Although some of the descriptions are somewhat extreme, the actions themselves aren’t new to either movie or novel. In other words, according to the eyewitness accounts we have, such things do happen. And when they do, who ya’ gonna call?

Exorcists were mostly extinct by the 1960s. A decade later, after the movie’s release, reports began to increase in number. Malachi Martin’s Hostage to the Devil, which I reviewed here some time ago, was a bestseller. It reinforced the idea planted by Blatty. And the number of exorcism requests hasn’t started going down yet. Are there more demons about, or are we all imagining things? It’s a question not easily answered.

The fact is science can’t measure phenomena that don’t consist of matter or energy. Occam’s razor shaves away the whiskers of the spiritual. Perhaps nature intended for us to be a bit hairier. Spirit is something that has always resisted science and its metrics. We know it when we see it in someone. Or perhaps when it impacts a person’s actions or motivations. It doesn’t impact a scale. It has no visible spectrum. Conventional wisdom says if you can’t see it, hear it, or otherwise sense it, it must not be there. We know this to be shortsighted thinking, however. “There are more things in heaven and earth,” Shakespeare wrote, and we would do well to pay the bard his due. Are there demons? I can’t say. I do know that people have been asking for the services of exorcists more and more. For that there is ample evidence.

Movie v. Book

The debate is about as old as celluloid itself; which is better, the book or the movie? The response obviously depends on personal taste, and I suspect that many people base their answer on criteria that can’t exactly be quantified. Often it’s a matter of the specifics—which book? Which movie? In my own experience I’ve done it both ways, read the book first and watched the movie initially. I’ve even gone to movies not realizing there was a book and, of course, some movies aren’t based on books at all. You couldn’t grow up when I did, however, and not know that The Exorcist was a movie based on a book. I never saw the movie in a theater. There was a lot of buzz about it in my hometown, of course. I hadn’t been introduced to modern horror yet—still being a Fundamentalist at the time—and besides, it was rated “R” and I wasn’t.

I finally got around to reading the book. At this point in my life I’ve seen the movie several times, so I knew how the story was “supposed to go” beforehand. The fact that William Peter Blatty wrote the screenplay suggested it would be close to the novel, and indeed that’s the case. Novels, by their nature, tend to have more information about the storyline than is obvious from a film. The author can take time to explain things that don’t translate visually, including scenes where one character lectures another, like this blog. Since I’m writing a book about demons in movies, I paid careful attention to this. One of the themes from the novel that didn’t make it to the movie was witches.

That surprised me a bit. I had seen the movie first and it was plenty scary just as it was. I had to remind myself that my younger years coincided with the rebirth of the fear of witches. Literal ones. I’m not an astute enough sociologist to say whether the “witch hunts” of McCarthyism led to a hypostatized fear of real witches or not, but people were afraid in those days, as I recall. The Exorcist tapped into cultural fears in a way rare for a horror movie. It spoke to the fears of the era, but it didn’t mention witches. I couldn’t help but make the comparison with Rosemary’s Baby, which hit theaters shortly after The Exorcist. Rosemary believes the Satanists are witches. There’s a whole supernatural concoction of malevolent entities on the loose. Witches, ultimately in the novel, are simply one avenue the desperate Chris MacNeil explores to find out what’s wrong with Regan. The movie, wisely in my opinion, chose to leave it out. Demons are scary enough on their own, but of course even that’s debatable.